The intense challenges facing the education system, brought into sharp relief by the pandemic, also create an opportunity to forge a new path.
“We need a new normal,” Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education emeritus at Stanford, told a panel during NCSL Base Camp 2021. And this is a good time to redesign the century-old approach to education in this country, she added.
“Throughout history, moments of great progress usually had moments of great stress that produced it,” said Darling-Hammond, who serves as president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and has authored and edited a number of award-winning books and more than 500 publications on education policy and practice.
Throughout history, moments of great progress usually had moments of great stress that produced it.” —Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute
Indiana Representative Robert Behning (R), chairman of the House Education Committee and a leader of education reform in that state, agreed the time is ripe.
“Never waste a crisis,” Behning said, paraphrasing Winston Churchill.
Darling-Hammond said there are three key areas to address to move education forward.
One is to move beyond “transmission teaching,” where students are taught a set of facts meant to prepare them for the working world.
That world has changed, according to Darling-Hammond.
“Between 1999 and 2003, the amount of knowledge created in the world was more than the entire history that preceded it,” she said. “Kids have to be prepared to learn things that haven’t been discovered yet, to use technology that hasn’t even been invented yet and to solve big problems.”
Students need to learn how to access information, understand data, evaluate it and collaborate with others to solve problems.
The second key area is to support kids the way they learn, Darling-Hammond said.
Research has established that “social and emotional skills and feelings tightly interact with learning,” she added.
Darling-Hammond noted that trauma dramatically affects learning and said 46 million kids in the U.S. every year experience some kind of adverse experience–poverty, hunger, lack of housing, abuse, neglect.
“The most important antidote to trauma is a strong set of relationships,” she said, adding that schools can do more on that front. In several countries, students have the same teachers through most of their elementary years, and fewer teachers in high school. Schools in the U.S. and elsewhere that offer a “family” group of students and teachers who serve as a home base have found that students have higher graduation rates and stronger achievement, she said.
The third area, according to Darling-Hammond, is equity.
“Community schools are a major strategy for equity,” she said. They provide wraparound services to meet the specific needs of students who face additional obstacles to learning–poverty, lack of technology and internet access, food and housing insecurity. Social workers, community managers and those in the school system can help to ensure students have the resources and relationships with school that allow them to succeed.
Make Learning More Relevant
Behning said he agrees with those goals. He has worked on education reform in Indiana for 20 years and, as chair of the House Education Committee, led a multiyear effort to pass one of the nation’s most comprehensive education packages.
Behning said educational systems also need to make learning more relevant.
“Kids are always saying, ‘Why do I need to learn this?’” he said. He advocates modern apprenticeships and hands-on learning with projects so students can develop portfolios to show their work and skills. Some of these changes will mean a big shift from policies that assume learning is all done in classrooms, and that set school funding based on time in chairs.
He said support services are critical for students. His granddaughter, who is in his care, suffers from PTSD, “a number of acute trauma experiences that have really impacted her, so I see it firsthand.”
Behning said the teaching workforce needs to be more diverse, and Indiana is working on incentive and training programs to help with recruitment. He noted that Indiana does not base school funding on property taxes so the state can adjust funding to provide more supports in struggling schools that would fall behind if they relied on local property taxes.
And Behning urged planners to be clear on strategic goals for education, so that all reforms aim at the appropriate outcomes, and can be measured against those goals.
Both Behning and Darling-Hammond think standardized tests need major revisions.
Multiple-choice tests aren’t helping, Darling-Hammond said.
“We are really the only country that uses multiple-choice questions, but you never do that in real life,” she added.
And they agree that testing should be used to help teachers learn what their students need, rather than serve primarily to assess the school or district.
“Keep testing in the teaching, learning, information and improvement space and not in the space of delivering punishment and sanctions,” Darling-Hammond said. “Because once that happens there are so many issues that come up in terms of distorting the outcome of the tests."
As for advice to states on spending the federal money coming to schools due to the pandemic, Behning and Darling-Hammond urge states to take a long view.
The money will be available until the beginning of 2025, but Darling-Hammond said to think beyond that date. "What do we want to plant deeply enough that it will continue?”
She also acknowledged there are acute needs that require immediate attention, listing closing the digital divide as one of those.
She noted that the organization she leads, the Learning Policy Institute, has a report describing ways to invest in and reform education: improving the educator pipeline to avoid teacher shortages, creating schools with wraparound services for social and emotional support, investing in early childhood education to “close that learning gap before it appears in school,” and redesigning schools to be competency- and project-based and demonstrate mastery.
Darling-Hammond said state legislatures have a vital role to play in the transformation of education by offering districts flexibility “to allow more powerful ways of learning to emerge.”
“We need to create an incubator of innovators,” he said. “We need some pioneers to go out there and set the pace and show what can be done.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor at NCSL.